Published on .

Most Popular
Remember your first job as a kid? Probably it was a summer job. Thrilling and scary all at the same time, a rite of passage like a first date, a first suit, a first covert smoke.

Margaret Hayes got me thinking about first jobs and about kids and about growing up. And about Cousin Mae.

She is a Ph.D. (Ms. Hayes, not Cousin Mae) who works as executive director of a New York outfit called Jobs For Youth, a privately funded organization which, as it describes itself, "For 36 years*.*.*.*has worked to enable low income, unemployed youth to successfully enter and compete in the labor market, and helped them to achieve their fullest career potential."

So Jobs For Youth isn't working to find kids from Andover and Saint Mark something to pass the time until college. They're working with kids like "Luis" who was already a single father when he dropped out of high school, was living in a group home, had low self-esteem, and once he got into the program, had to be told, over and over, such simple things as to take off his hat in the classroom and to sit down.

When JFY got through with him, Luis had a full-time job in the Pitney Bowes mailroom, had moved into an apartment of his own, and was not only supporting his daughter but was planning to move her from his mother's place to his own.

At this time of year, of course, the emphasis at JFY is on summer jobs. Here in New York there's a summer work scholarship program, now in its 22nd year, that works with high schoolers having college potential, getting them into supervised jobs with businesses around town. Here the qualifications are stiffer; a Luis might not have made the first cut: these kids must demonstrate what JFY calls "a commitment to leadership development," have to have a 75 grade-point average (last year the "average" average was 89!), and really want to work.

Once accepted, they get seven weeks of work, Monday through Thursday, with Fridays turned over to "leadership activities." Among the companies participating for the summer of '96 were Pfizer, Bristol Myers-Squibb, Chase Bank, Cap Cities/ABC, TIAA-CREF, Colgate-Palmolive, plus foundations and individuals. Other corporations such as Time Warner, Bozell Worldwide, DowBrands, Hill & Knowlton, Sony Corp., McGraw-Hill Cos., Merrill Lynch & Co., etc., are benefactors of the overall program. Clearly, Ms. Hayes and her associates want more and can be reached at 312 West 36th St., New York 10018 or by phone at (212)643-6000.

As bad as things were in the Great Depression and in the '40s and '50s when I was growing up, even for a latchkey kid there was usually a family structure to help out even on that first summer job. Too many minority teens don't have family. Or structure. And they certainly don't have Cousin Mae.

Cousin Mae was married to a New York traffic cop, Cousin Rudy, who was a huge, wonderful guy whose great hobby was surfcasting at Breezy Point and although he fished for many years and owned an impressive number of rods, reels and assorted lures, was believed in our family never, ever! to have caught a fish. But it got him out of the house. Cousin Mae was a telephone operator (when they still had switchboards with millions of wires plugged into a board of dazzling complexity) for the white shoe Wall Street law firm (it was actually on Pine Street) of Mudge, Stern, Williams & Tucker (later the firm of those rascals, Richard Nixon and John Mitchell).

And when I was 14 and wrapping up my freshman year at Regis High School, Cousin Mae was conscripted to get me an office boy's job at Mudge Stern. A partner named Mr. Shipman interviewed me. He resembled Sidney Greenstreet and when we were finished he asked how old I was. Feeling like Oliver Twist in the workhouse I answered truly. "I'm 14, sir." "Then we shall pay you 14 dollars a week, boy," Mr. Shipman told me.

While I was treated with considerable disdain, Mr. Shipman and all the partners at Mudge Stern thought most highly of Cousin Mae. One reason for this, I gathered, was that she placed bets for them with a friendly bookie, these being the days before OTB.

In that era (maybe now as well), you needed working papers. This, also, was very Dickensian. You had to go to Specialty Trades High School (the nuns at grammar school threatened us with tales of Specialty Trades. "That's where you'll end up, boy, if you don't pass geography!") to fill out forms and apply for your work papers. Next came a Social Security card. And finally, that first, awe-inspiring Monday morning in the austere though elegant offices of a great law firm.

I made only $140 that summer in 10 weeks, 9 to 5, and Saturday mornings 'til noon. But that's all right; I'd begun the process. In Margaret Hayes' words, entering and competing in the labor market, thanks to Cousin Mae. That's why they have Jobs For Youth, for kids without a Cousin Mae.

In this article: